Media and Transitional Justice: A Dream of Symbiosis in a Troubled Relationship

9/20/2016

Refik Hodzic and David Tolbert

In transitional contexts, reporting does not simply present the facts, but instead shapes the parameters for interpreting divisive political issues. Coverage in such polarized contexts can mitigate or obscure the substance of transitional justice efforts to establish what happened, who the victims were, and who was responsible for the violations. It can either catalyze or paralyze the debate on how to repair victims and ensure that systematic violence does not recur. This paper explores this relationship in contexts like South Africa, the former former Yugoslavia, Guatemala and more.

One of the least studied, yet highly significant relationships that unfolds in transitional contexts, where efforts are underway to reckon with past abuses, is the nexus between transitional justice measures and the media. Th is paper provides an overview of the main issues that often burden this relationship with mutual mistrust and at times even open conflict. The paper also provides examples of the positive social impacts of media engaging with transitional justice processes, where a degree of complementarity exists. Moreover, it makes a case for the media to constructively engage with such processes in the public interest, of which the media is a natural guardian.

The power of media can be instrumentalized toward either virtuous or nefarious ends, and there are myriad examples of media being used to foment violence and dehumanize groups targeted in conflict or various forms of state repression. Media has been used to polarize or inflame underlying identity issues, deepen divides and reinforce the root causes of conflict. Such manipulation of media easily extends into transitional times and may take the form of “us-versus-them” biases that reinforce nationalist myths of victimhood and supremacy. Not all members of society may support efforts to arrive at truth and accountability for past violations, especially members of the former regime or the formerly loyal elites, and media companies owned by political parties, government factions, or powerful business interests “can seize on polarizing myths as a mode of retaining their loyal following, often subverting the possibility of bridge figures emerging.”

At the same time, media can also support and promote transitional justice mechanisms by reflecting society’s new values and demands of victims. In a global online debate hosted by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), UN Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng asserted, “If media has the power to incite and fuel such heinous crimes as we witnessed in Rwanda and elsewhere, then it is also possible that it can be used as a force for good to promote peaceful coexistence among the population.”

Drawing on academic work on the subject and the voices of journalists, transitional justice practitioners, and academics, this paper charts the ways in which the media can impact the success of transitional justice efforts and examines the myriad factors shaping journalists’ approach to reporting on these processes. It then analyzes the distinct ways that media covers or interacts with transitional justice processes during their various stages. Th is sets the stage for a brief analysis of examples of different forms of symbiosis between media and transitional justice processes, which emphasizes the positive impact of special reporting projects dedicated solely to covering these issues. Th e discussion of the complementarity between the two is followed by examples of the destructive impact of politicized and negative media coverage, which has seriously undermined the work of truth commissions or trials in certain countries, diminishing any lasting societal impact they might have. Finally, the paper draws attention to the possible benefits that emerging transitional contexts like Colombia could experience from understanding the significance of this complex relationship and addressing the need for a constructive engagement of media in the transitional justice process from the beginning.

"The relationship between media and transitional justice efforts in any given situation exists within a spectrum delineated by two diametrically opposed manifestations: symbiosis and conflict."

Truth Commission Special Report Multimedia Product. (South African History Archive)

Special Projects, Special Impact

Th e richest vein of examples of the constructive impact that media engagement can have with transitional justice efforts lies in the history of reporting projects created to provide special coverage of transitional justice processes. Perhaps the best and most well-known example comes from South Africa. Alex Boraine, Deputy Chairman of South Africa’s TRC 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 backbone of this media undertaking was a weekly television digest called TRC Special Report, which ran for two years, employing some of the best storytellers in South African journalism at the time to tell the “stories behind the stories” of the TRC. Th e program was broadcast in prime time. Cole describes in “Reverberations of Testimony: South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Art and Media:”

Both television and radio gave their audiences experientially rich access to those who gave testimony. Whether that access was conveyed largely through sonic dimensions of timbre, tone, gasps, and silence through radio, or through the added visual registers such as body language, clothing, and facial expressions that are conveyed through television, broadcast media made manifest the people who were at the center of the public hearings. This included people who were classified as “victims” giving testimony, perpetrators asking for amnesty, spectators in the hall, or the commissioners presiding over the proceedings. Broadcast media provided a personalization and particularization of the stories the commission called forth - stories that in aggregate could otherwise be mind-numbing in magnitude, scale, and sheer brutality. Both the hearings and their promulgation via broadcast coverage made individuals the central site of the commission’s communication, whereas print coverage and the TRC’s own summary report privileged information divorced from its human sources.

The decisive impact of TRC coverage by broadcast media comes to light especially when contrasted with the critical and at times hostile tone of the reporting by most of the country’s print media. As Gibson says of media coverage, “Complaints and condemnation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission far outnumber laudatory assessments.” However, as Cole writes, news programs, memoirs, and artistic works based on TRC testimony generated critical public engagement and amplified the communicative impact of this extraordinary transitional justice process so that its stories and themes reverberated long after the commission formally concluded its work.

Th is dynamic where special reporting projects work to fairly mediate proceedings of transitional justice measures in an otherwise hostile media landscape controlled by political forces invested in minimizing their societal impact (if not derailing them altogether) is present in various other contexts. Examples of SENSE News Agency reporting from the ICTY and Hirondelle News Agency reporting from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), a tribunal created to try those most responsible for serious crimes, including genocide, committed in Rwanda and neighboring states from January 1, 1994, to December 31, 1994. Both stand out both in terms of their coverage and the invaluable record their consistent reporting has created on the two ad hoc tribunals.

SENSE is a specialized project focused on regular and comprehensive coverage of the work of the ICTY. Since 1998 the agency has continuously produced daily news reports and a weekly television program titled Th e Tribunal for TV networks in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia & Montenegro and FYROM, which are disseminated free of charge. In addition to daily reports and weekly TV programs, SENSE has so far produced seven documentary films: Triumph of Evil (2001), about the Srebrenica genocide trial; Against All Odds (2003), chronicling the first ten years of the ICTY; three documentaries detailing the case against Dr. Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, Th e Fugitives (2004), Life and Deeds of Radovan Karadzic (2005), Rise and Fall of General Mladic (2005); Beyond Reasonable Doubt (2005), an examination of the Srebrenica massacre 10 years later; and Sarajevo Roses – Terror in 12 Pictures (2012), about the way the 44-month siege of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s capital has been depicted and reconstructed in trials before the ICTY.

Hirondelle News Agency was the only media outlet reporting regularly in four languages (English, French, Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili) on the ICTR and other judicial proceedings related to the Rwandan genocide. Since it was created in 1997, it has produced more than 17,000 dispatches, creating a unique record of the ICTR’s work. Its reporting on the ICC focuses particularly on those countries where Fondation Hirondelle has leading radio stations with nationwide coverage: the Democratic Republic of Congo (Radio Okapi), the Central African Republic (Radio Ndeke Luka), and South Sudan (Radio Miraya). As well as a small team of four permanent staff in Arusha, it works with a network of correspondents in Kigali, Nairobi, Paris, Brussels and in The Hague (at the ICC). It also receives support from international staff based in Switzerland and the United States.

SENSE and Hirondelle, as well as some other special reporting projects, such as the interactive community radio in the DRC, BIRN Justice Report in the Balkans, and Plaza Publica’s online reporting project on Rioss Montt’s trial in Guatemala, resemble the context, if not the immediate impact of the TRC Special Report. This is largely due to the unique political atmosphere in which these special reporting projects have operated, where the key opinion makers in the political establishment who control or enjoy the support of media and institutions—intelligentsia, academia, religious institutions, and—are existentially invested in undermining any efforts at truth and accountability. In such circumstances, their short-term impact is severely limited. However, the body of reporting they produced remains an invaluable record that will continue to reverberate as these societies grapple with legacies of atrocities and conflict.

"Without the active participation of media as agents of social change fully aware of their impact or responsibility regarding the process, the sense of ownership of transitional justice efforts in key constituencies will remain elusive, even with the most sophisticated outreach effort. At the same time, the media must accept that undermining transitional justice processes is not compatible with the proclaimed underlying principle of journalism: acting in the public interest. "

Conclusion

The relationship between media and transitional justice is as crucial today as it is troubled and understudied. The rich body of experiences that populate the spectrum of examples between situations of symbiosis and conflict between them remains largely unexplored and misunderstood. At the same time, the awareness of the relationship and its importance is growing in the fields of both transitional justice and the media.

Unfortunately, when it comes to many transitional justice practitioners, the awareness of the value of engaging with media has yet to evolve from a reluctant agreement to “have some outreach,” usually driven by the realization that without clear, effective communication, the perception of their efforts will be negative or misconstrued. Without the active participation of media as agents of social change fully aware of their impact or responsibility regarding the process, the sense of ownership of transitional justice efforts in key constituencies will remain elusive, even with the most sophisticated outreach effort. At the same time, the media must accept that undermining transitional justice processes is not compatible with the proclaimed underlying principle of journalism: acting in the public interest.

What does this mean in reality? If the goal of the various mechanisms of transitional justice is to impact people’s lives for the better, the media’s role in sharing information and shaping public debate and discourse must be intentionally incorporated from the very beginning. How to do this and what it would look like, however, is still largely unexplored, both in practice and in theory. It is clear, however, that the dialogue must begin at the earliest stages of transitional justice process and it must extend beyond the notions of training about legal and procedural issues.

Arriving at a collective memory of the past is one of the greatest challenges facing a post-conflict society because it implies reaching a degree of consensus in a polarized context. While truth commissions attempt to present an objective account of the events of a society’s repressive or violent past, they inevitably contend with multiple perspectives and interpretations of this history. In essence, truth commissions and other transitional justice mechanisms must mediate this conflict to bring society to a shared version of this past, which arguably entails a society-wide admission that egregious human rights violations occurred and that victims must be acknowledged. However, for this end to result, transitional justice efforts rely on the media to encourage consensus making about the past—a daunting but crucial undertaking if society is to escape sliding back into conflict.

Ultimately, the media has the potential to bridge the gap between yesterday’s enemies by replacing fearmongering with a focus on empathy, by illustrating how much people have in common and championing victims’ rights to truth and justice. Especially in contexts where the media played a destructive role in the process of the dehumanization of “the other”, which usually laid the groundwork for massive human rights violations, it is precisely in this arena where the shift from denial to acknowledgement must happen. In addition to amplifying messages of acknowledgement coming from transitional justice processes, the media can produce and commission content which will feature voices of victims to humanize them again, and demonstrate that empathy for the other is not an act of betrayal of national or ethnic interests, as wartime ideologies almost always teach.

These are mere examples of what the media can constructively do in transitional contexts to signal to its audiences that the norm of hatred and conflict is being dismantled. There lies the enormous potential for a symbiosis with transitional justice efforts, which, like the media, at least in theory, are established and designed to act in the public interest.

Date published: 
9/20/2016