“If You Don’t Believe in Human Rights, What Are You Doing in Journalism?” du Preez on Transitional Justice and Media


Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) will host a series of public hearings this month, where victims will share their stories publicly. The hearings provide Tunisian society an important opportunity to hear the truth about the dictatorship’s abuses directly from victims and to confront the country’s oppressive history.

In order for the public testimonies to be effective, the media must tell victims’ stories fully and explore the issues underpinning their experiences. To help Tunisian media prepare for next month’s coverage and ensure they have all the resources they need, the TDC organized a week-long media training session for journalists. With the support of ICTJ and the United Nations Development Program, the training session brought together reporters from across the country, as well as experts who have experience covering other transitional justice processes.

Among the international experts attending the training was Max du Preez, whose newspaper and television reporting in Apartheid South Africa was essential in confronting the regime’s brutal practices. Max shared his experience with the Tunisian journalists at the training, explaining how he overcame challenges in covering his own country’s transition and fielding questions from journalists preparing to cover the public hearings.

ICTJ sat down with Max to discuss the training session, his own journalism, and what advice he offered his Tunisian counterparts.

Max, we are so pleased to welcome you at our office, ICTJ Tunisia Office. I know that this is the first time you are here in Tunisia and we are so glad that you would answer to our few questions. So, can you talk about why you are here today?

I’m here to try and help Tunisian journalists figure out how they should report on the Truth and Dignity Commission, because I was in charge of television coverage of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for a few years and we had a very successful program. And, so I thought it would be interesting to compare our experiences and tell them the mistakes we made when we covered the Truth Commission, the pitfalls, the dangers, the potential. And mostly I wanted to tell them that they should be bold and imaginative, and that they should realize that the process of a truth commission is more important than any report or any piece of paper and that only the media could make that happen. They could popularize a truth commission so that they could fix a nation, the people’s hearts and minds rather than the politicians and the civil service.

You were writing in Afrikaans, which means you were writing in large part for those in power or those benefitting from power. What was it like to publicly confront them with the truth about Apartheid? What lessons can you draw from that?

Yes, I was working with English language newspapers in the 80s and then toward the mid-80s, I realized that most members of the perpetrator class of the white minority government were Afrikaans speakers, as is my mother tongue. And, there’s a natural resistance from them to anything that they’re told not in their own language, especially if it’s done in English. They see that as the enemy, and I knew that I had the obligation to use my mother tongue to speak to my own tribe, my own culture, which was hard, because they don’t mind if somebody from outside the tribe tells them nasty things because they can just dismiss them.

But here I am from within and I’m telling them what you’re doing is wrong. It is a crime against humanity. Do you know what is going on? And I wrote this in Afrikaans…and my colleagues and I in an independent newspaper that we own, and the response was very uncomfortable. I became estranged from my family. Nobody from my village or from my family wanted to know me anymore. My father denied that I was his son. So, very traumatic, but very, very necessary, to come from within, and say from within, instead of criticizing from without. And in the end, I think, despite the fact that we were attacked, and harassed, and they bombed our offices, and they tried to kill me and put us in jail and all this kind of stuff, I think it was important to do this in the language in the so-called language of the oppressor so they could never say "we did not know." Because we told them what was going on in the black neighborhoods, we told them what was going on in the liberation movement, so that they could never come and say "we voted for the Apartheid regime because we didn’t know." Well we told them.

How can media be instrumental in the struggle for accountability and redress?

I think media are ideally placed in the forefront of any project to establish accountability and transparency in government. Because on a daily basis, we can hold up a mirror to government. We can remind them of what they say and what they do. We can, on a daily basis, stir among ordinary people who read and listen and watch television radio and newspapers. “This is what these people are doing in your name. You voted for this, so now ask your questions. We will tell you what we think is going on but you as a public need to ask the questions because you have the right to know.”

So, we as the media need to be absolutely relentless and do this every day of our lives. The bottom line is: politicians and civil servants should be transparent and accountable on every single level because that is what democracy is about, not an election every five years. Between elections, media become most the important part of democracy. Because you have an election today and you have people elected that have a free pass for five years before they ask for public opinion again. And from that day, after that election, the media should step in and say remember what you promised and that month and that year, they should go back and say: ‘remember what you promised when you asked people to vote for you?’ That’s what the media should do. The media and the courts are the two crucial pillars with civil society and the judiciary… are the crucial pillars of democracy in between elections.

What was your biggest challenge in covering Apartheid and what lessons can be drawn from that experience?

I think the biggest challenge during Apartheid was, apart from safety, apart from avoiding prosecution, avoiding harassment, avoiding being killed or jailed or tortured, was to penetrate the minds of the people who believed, who stood behind the regime. The most difficult thing was to get people to see that the path they were on was leading to civil war and great injustice. It is very important and very difficult for media to demonstrate to a ruling class of people that what they are doing is not in their own interest and is immoral. And that they should let go of the privilege because it will lead to revolution it will lead to civil war if they don’t stop. So those, those are the difficulties. If you are in the media and you are fighting an oppressive system then you know that you are running certain risks.

You know you that are putting your life on the line, you know that you run risks to end up in jail, to end up dead. That goes without question. The other stuff that’s far more important is getting the right information and getting people to believe you. Getting the ruling class to believe what you say and to persuade them.

And during your training session with Tunisian journalists, what questions asked by journalists stood out to you?

I think I was interested in hearing journalists talk about the different interests that the different media houses represent. The fear among journalists that media in Tunisia are representing power families, powerful lobby groups, powerful corporations and not all of them are very happy to see the Truth and Dignity Commission succeed as an open process.

I think that was the one thing that was interesting. The other thing that was interesting was the questions that journalists were asking about the Truth and Dignity Commission. ‘Why do want to limit us so much? Why do you keep on saying this is not allowed, that is not allowed, this is not allowed. you can’t do this, you can’t reveal the identities of this and that?’ [This] is the perverse suspicion among journalists that they are not trusted and that they should be given more freedom. I was also interested in their interest in my experience that storytelling, putting a human face, behind the story is the most effective way to communicate a process like a Truth and Dignity Commission.

And what should journalists keep in mind when converting truth telling activities

The media should have respect for victims and survivors, deep, deep respect. The media should make very sure that they’re communicating effectively, if nobody is going to watch a television, if you don’t succeed in getting people to watch and listen to then you have failed. This is not just an ordinary story to be covered by media, this is a national event this is part of Tunisia’s history. It’s part of who you are as people, it’s part of who you are as human beings, it is a big, big, big, big moment. You have to treat, as media, this event that way and make sure that you tell the stories truthfully.

And that is the other interesting bit: are you a citizen or a journalist first? Because normally, we say I am not a citizen, I am just a journalist. I am just reporting the facts. When it comes to the Truth and Dignity Commission, maybe you are 50% citizen and 50% journalist because this is of national important to communicate properly. Not anybody’s side, the truth, the people’s side. What happened? You are writing history. You have to be truthful and you have to be successful in telling the story so that the people will listen.

How do you differentiate between – or connect – activism and journalism? Are they necessarily separate?

I have always been an activist-journalist. I do not believe in objectivity. I believe in fairness, and I believe in balance, and I believe in checking my sources. I believe in giving the other side a voice. But I don’t believe in this neutrality. Because it’s a lie anyway. Nobody is neutral. You’re a product of your environment, your background, your ethnic group, where you grew up, what class you are in, your parents, your grandparents, your friends all those things influence. So you have to be honest about all that.

When it comes to something like human rights or free speech how can a journalist not be an activist? Every journalist who is serious about journalism is an activist for free speech and an open society and human rights. That is before you start being a journalist, you have to be those three things. If you don’t believe in an open society and free speech, why the hell are you a journalist? Why don’t you go do advertising? If you don’t believe in human rights, what are you doing in journalism? So now every journalist should be an activist but not for sectional interests, not for a political party, but on behalf of the people, on behalf of the greater good, on behalf of fundamental justice, on behalf of openness, on behalf of transparency and accountability. For those things, every journalist should be an activist, and if you’re not an activist than I’m afraid that I don’t respect you as a part of my profession.

So my last question is what would be your advice to the Tunisian truth commission and Tunisian civil society in order to achieve the TJ main objectives, namely the preservation of memory and history?

I would plead with the Truth and Dignity Commission to take the public into their confidence, to trust the people, to trust the media more. I would plead with them to realize that this process is not about them. The truth and dignity commission is not about the commissioners, or the officials, or the politicians, or the government, or the judges, it is about the people of Tunisia. That’s what it’s about, and the commission should always remember that and the path to a nation, the path to the people goes through the media and so I would urge the Truth and Dignity Commission to have a good working relationship with television and media and news journalists and to help them tell the story, not hinder them. Trust them a little bit more. Because you need to get to the people because this is not about politicians, it’s about the masses of the people. Tunisia has a moment now to write history. A unique moment to say: we cannot as one historian or one writer, but as nation we can all record our history what happened before and during this revolution and that will stand. If you miss this opportunity, it will not come again, it will not come again. So that’s where truth is concerned…and where history is concerned… we are writing history now.

I’m jealous that South Africa did not call its commission a Truth and Dignity Commission, it makes so much more sense than what we had…was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so maybe we had a bit of reconciliation, we should have had more dignity. We should have contemplated on human dignity Because fundamentally what is behind all the efforts to establish transitional justice and restorative justice is human dignity. Again I would urge the commission and I would urge the media that human dignity has nothing to do with paperwork, with officials, with commissioners, with judges, with politicians. We’re not talking about they’re dignity. They have it, they’re the privileged. We’re talking about the dignity of the people of Tunisia, we’re talking about the dignity of the victims and the survivors of the oppression and of the revolution. And I hope and pray that Tunisia will grasp this moment and that 10 and 20 and 50 and 100 years from now people will look on and say what a grand moment that was in Tunisia’s history.

PHOTO: South African journalist Max du Preez discusses his experience covering South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission at a media training session in Tunisia. (Truth and Dignity Commission/Facebook)