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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Who Can Carry the Torch?

Dejan Anastasijevic
Correspondent, Tanjug

In this debate, more than a few commentators have noticed that there’s quite a large swath of common ground between myself and my “opponent”, Carlos Dada. They are right, and it’s because we’re both committed to the same professional principles, even if we tend to interpret them somewhat differently. As Eric Gordy declared, to some extent we are both right. It seems there are no clear winners in this match: the glass remains half-full, or half-empty.

But if the debate has so far failed to produce a final verdict on its opening question, it has raised a number of other issues. For me, by far the most important one is about the general role of the media in post-conflict societies, and their role as what Nerma Jelacic refers to as “watchdogs” or, as Lisa Laplante put it, the “gatekeepers” of information. With due respect to both canines and professional sportsmen, I find such metaphors slightly disturbing, but maybe it’s just me.

We can all agree with David Tolbert, Nerma Jelacic, and a number of others that the coverage of the ICTY by the ex-Yugoslav press was, with few exceptions, appalling. A whole new chapter in the history of infamy in journalism could be written on this subject alone. But while there’s no denying that journalists own their share of responsibility for the “meek results” of the transitional justice process on the ground, as described by Jelacic, there are other forces involved, forces that are deeper and more powerful than the press.

Eric Gordy pinpointed the problem by his notion that the media is not an independent entity, noting that they “enter onto the scene burdened with their own loyalties and legacies.” He is also right to conclude that the most constructive role and contribution that media can make is to encourage “well informed and balanced discussions.” These sorts of discussions, however, require a certain kind of social and political environment. There has to be a genuine desire—by at least some parts of a society—to deal with the past, even if it spoils the black-and-white narrative forged by nationalists.

That desire was pointedly absent in the political elite, academia, judiciary, and in the general public in Serbia (and, I dare say, in other parts of the former Yugoslavia). One explanation is the fact that large parts of Slobodan Milosevic’s propaganda machine—as well as security apparatus—remained largely intact after he was kicked out of power in 2000. The new political leadership quickly decided to engage them for their own benefit; besides, trying to dismantle them was risky, as some discovered soon enough.

The result is that the nationalist narrative established by Milosevic not only persevered, but was cemented. Very few people in today’s Serbia believe that there was any justification for NATO’s involvement in Kosovo in 1999, or that what happened in Srebrenica was, indeed, genocide. “We were framed,” the collective voice whines constantly. “It’s not us. It’s them.” Not just the politicians, but the general public (i.e. their voters) find this voice both seductive and comforting. The truth, being ugly and disturbing, remains shunned.

There were, of course, media outlets and a handful of NGO’s who refused to succumb to the culture of impunity and stood up for justice and the victims, but by now, they’ve been marginalized or pacified. Zola’s “J’accuse”, invoked by David Tolbert in this debate, resonated in France not because it was a powerful, truthful, and well written piece, but because it was written by a figure of national grandeur, whose patriotism and moral authority were established long before the Dreyfus affair broke out. Unfortunately, our figures of similar status tended to side with the generals. Under the circumstances, expecting the journalists to pick up the torch and lead the way out was, perhaps, unrealistic.

If this seems somewhat defeatist, I should add that the process, while dwindling, is not over. An ambitious initiative, called RECOM, is working hard on creating a large database on the wars in the former Yugoslavia, which would include not only facts, but personal testimonies by victims. The initiative, launched by a cluster of NGO’s, has so far received at least nominal support from the authorities in the region and once completed, it may provide an invaluable source of information for future generations. It is a new approach, and—for the record and despite my initial position in this debate—I think it deserves to be supported.

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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