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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What Justice?

Dejan Anastasijević
Correspondent, Tanjug

Let’s start with the term “transitional justice.” Over the past several decades we have witnessed many attempts to heal the wounds of oppression and war by putting perpetrators on trial and providing a sense of closure to victims. In South Africa and several Latin American countries, this was done through truth commissions; in Rwanda, Cambodia, and the former Yugoslavia, ad hoc international criminal courts under UN auspices were tasked with dispensing justice. And then there’s the International Criminal Court, in The Hague, a permanent fixture aimed at dealing with most egregious crimes on a global scale.

So, how successful have these efforts turned out to be? Again, there’s no simple answer. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was by most accounts a success, but commissions in Guatemala and Bolivia much less so. The ad hoc courts have an even more varied track record, and the ICC is still making baby steps, mostly dealing with African warlords. Even a short analysis of the achievements of these courts far exceeds both the frame of this text and the author’s capacities to understand the intricacies of international humanitarian law. However, there is one court I feel competent to reflect on, and that’s the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

As a reporter covering the Yugoslav wars and a witness in the trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, I got an intimate glance at both how the crimes unfolded and how justice was served.

The bottom line? Milošević, almost universally seen as the main instigator of Yugoslavia’s bloody breakdown, died of heart failure before the trial ended, rendering the process inconclusive. His two main henchmen, Chief of General Staff of the Yugoslav Army Momčilo Perišić and chief of the secret police Jovica Stanišić, were both acquitted on very dubious grounds. Despite ample evidence of crimes against Bosnian Muslim and Serb civilians committed by Croatian police and military, few were indicted, and none were convicted. In the case against several commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the trial chamber admitted that witnesses were subjected to systematic threats and intimidation, but let the defendants go for lack of evidence… I could go on, but you get the idea.

So where were the media in this mess? As always, we’re on the sidelines, cheering and booing according to our own choices and/or editorial policies. Most media in the former Yugoslavia report on the Hague trials as sports matches, favoring “our boys” over prosecutors and jeering at the “monsters” from another ethnic group. There are exceptions, of course, but they are few, and some journalists were subjected to threats for not being patriotic enough.

Would the public opinion in the former Yugoslavia have been more supportive of the ICTY if the media was less biased? 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. Many a convicted war criminal – not to mention the acquitted – received a hero’s welcome from their respective chiefs of state after serving a sentence.

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.

Before supporting anything or anyone in particular, media should support and serve the truth, and there should be no other master. Of course, the media can educate and dumb down, they can entertain, they can preach and curse, and they can in some rare cases help to provide justice. But these are side effects, not their main purpose. Mixing the priorities can lead to all sorts of blunders, as we are witnessing so often these days. The media’s raison d’être is to provide the public with timely, accurate, relevant, and objective information. This by itself should be enough to put wind in the sails of any good enterprise, transitional justice included.

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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