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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Should the Media Actively Support Transitional Justice Efforts?

Refik Hodzic
Communications Director, ICTJ

In the hope of catalyzing a far-reaching debate among the various “sides” invested in this issue, we decided to posit a more direct question: “Should the media actively support transitional justice efforts?”

Going beyond simple declarations of support for the notions of truth or justice, we asked if the media should be a neutral observer of transitional justice measures, objectively and critically reporting on what they deem to be of interest to 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?

If we assume consensus about the underlying aims of transitional justice measures – to affect social change and contribute to societal shifts from cultures of impunity to cultures of rights and civic trust - we must also assume the media’s decisive influence on their success.

In “Mediating Post-conflict Dialogue: The Media’s Role in Transitional Justice Processes”, Lisa Laplante and Kelly Phenicie describe this influence in clear terms: “Given the central role that the media plays in keeping citizens informed and shaping public opinion in democratic societies, it is inevitable that the media would also influence the public‘s impression of the work of transitional justice mechanisms and the information they seek to impart. Indeed, news making is agenda setting because it influences what the public regards as important for them to think about in society and politics.”

Carlos Dada, editor of El Faro magazine from San Salvador and the advocate of the “Yes” response in this debate writes: “Justice as 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.”

The symbiosis between the intended goals of both – the media and transitional justice efforts – is perhaps so obvious that it would seem unnecessary to hold a debate on the topic. However, the reality of this relationship is deeply complex, often far from a mutually reinforcing complementarity, but instead one of a very uneasy cohabitation.

The examples of Peru, countries of the former Yugoslavia, and numerous other transitional contexts show that media has often played a decisively negative role in mediating information about war crimes trials or truth commissions, often cementing public misperceptions and fueling political polarization in already-fractured societies.

The politicization of coverage, the “us-versus-them” bias in reporting that reinforces nationalist myths of victimhood and supremacy, and some journalists’ inadequate knowledge of procedures and legal concepts are some sources of this negative impact.

However, transitional justice practitioners shoulder their share of responsibility for this troubled relationship. Transitional justice institutions often don’t see media as an ally but as an ill-informed nuisance, if not an adversary.

The philosophy of “our works speaks for itself” permeates many a courtroom and office staffed by those whose decisions could irreversibly shape societies’ ability to reckon with a violent past. In some cases, the furthest they go in ensuring a social impact is to task special offices with public relations under the guise of “outreach,” while the idea of working with media to ensure this broader impact is reduced to organizing “trainings” and “education seminars” for reporters.

“It’s easy to proclaim that the media should support justice, transitional or otherwise, but when it comes to specifics, the moral compass starts to reel. 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,” says Dejan Anastasijevic, a seasoned reporter for Serbian news agency Tanjug, magazine Vreme and the Time magazine, who is arguing for the “No” response here.

In the extreme, there have been cases of direct conflict involving journalists who publish information protected by international tribunals’ orders, which has resulted in subpoenas, indictments and judgments against journalists.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia had several such cases, going as far as jailing a journalist for publishing names of protected witnesses (a virulent public debate is currently raging between Lebanese media and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon around a similar issue, although STL is not generally seen as a vehicle of transitional justice). Instead of symbiosis, the dynamics here are those of animosity, conflict and retribution with lines clearly drawn between legal mandates on one side and interpretations of press freedom on the other.

Of course, this complex relationship is not defined entirely by conflict. There are countless examples of media projects that have been crucial in promoting victims’ rights, championing accountability, even uncovering long hidden truths about crimes and their perpetrators.

In South Africa, the media played an absolutely instrumental role in the early successes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose Deputy Chairman Alex Boraine wrote: “Unlike many other truth commissions, this one was center stage, and the media coverage, particularly radio, enabled the poor, the illiterate, and people living in rural areas to participate in its work so that it was truly a national experience rather than restricted to a small handful of selected commissioners.”

The issue is as complex as it is crucial, yet there is relatively little research and academic work exploring it. It is with this in mind that we organized this debate.

We have two excellent panelists who will over the next several weeks present their most persuasive arguments. However, their role is not to provide definitive answers to the debate question, but to inspire your thinking and reactions. The outcome of the debate is in your hands, as your voices will help broaden our collective understanding of the relationship between the media and transitional justice.

I very much look forward to reading your comments.

Refik Hodzic is the Communications Director of the International Center for Transitional Justice. For almost two decades, Hodžić has worked in transitional justice as a journalist, film maker as well as an expert in public information and outreach campaigns. He has focused on post-war justice and media primarily in the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, and Timor-Leste. He worked for the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia serving as the tribunal’s spokesman and outreach coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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