Media’s role in transitional justice

A TRUTH and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — however imperfect its structure and process — was a mechanism for peace (in South Africa).

I felt sure that, somehow, the TRC could prevent South Africa from disintegrating into an endless cycle of revenge and violence.
The media played a central role in helping South Africa make sense of this complex, confusing journey.

Cartoonist Zapiro summed it up with his usual incisive wit. He depicted Archbishop Desmond Tutu poised on the edge of a precipice called “Truth”. Behind Tutu: a motley bunch of journalists, along with a perpetrator and a victim in a wheelchair.
Across the gaping chasm there was another precipice — this time called “Reconciliation”. Tutu clutched a useless map, and utters one word: “Oops!”

Anyone who has lived through a period of personal or political transition knows all about the “oops!” word.
“The past is never dead,” wrote the American novelist, William Faulkener. “It’s not even past.”

What then is transitional justice? I like the way Judge Richard Goldstone describes it: “Transitional justice,” he says, “is ultimately about nations torn apart by gross violations of human rights, learning to live together within a context of dignity, human rights and social justice.”

Implicit in Goldstone’s definition is healing; a sense of moving forward into a brighter future, and—above all — the recognition that such a complex process cannot be fast-forwarded. It takes time.

Transitional justice, therefore, is about the past, the present and the future. There are no fixed models. There can’t be, because every nation’s history is unique.

But we can identify five common foundation stones. These are:
Prosecutions: of perpetrators of human rights abuses;
 Truth-telling: uncovering the extent and nature of past abuses through initiatives such as truth commissions;
Reparations: for victims of human rights violations;
Memorialisation: finding ways to preserve the memory of the past, through museums or memorials. And finally:
Institutional reform: of sectors that were used as tools of repression, especially the security sector: the police, the military. Reform of the judiciary, of the electoral system, of education. and, of course: reform of the media.

Each of these areas can generate a wealth of stories and— for the media — many challenges.

Firstly, when we write transitional justice stories, context and follow-up are all-important. It’s not enough to do one isolated article, or to ghettoise transitional justice issues.

So, a transitional justice process offers us the chance to reflect, as media, on our past. Rwanda is a much-quoted example. Especially Radio Milles Collines, which played a direct and horrifying role in the genocide. “Kill the cockroaches!” The radio urged its listeners. And neighbour turned against neighbour. Those chilling words still haunt us: a reminder of the power of media, and its potential to incite hatred, or to nurture peace.

It’s not always so clear-cut, of course.

Transitional justice reporting also requires in-depth investigation: the ability and the resources to excavate through layers of complex, contested versions of the truth.

But transitional justice isn’t only about naming and shaming. It’s also about healing. About conversations and dialogue, finding common ground, when society has been fractured. For journalists, this might mean finding ways to challenge polarisation within the media sector.

How did the South African media cover the TRC process from 1996-98?

As part of the TRC process, there was a three-day Special Hearing on the role of the media during the apartheid-era. Black journalists spoke angrily and eloquently about the racism and abuses they experienced — not just in state-controlled media organisations but, to the shocked surprise of many  —  in the newsrooms of so-called “liberal” papers.

The Special Hearing also highlighted the role of state agents: for instance, the spies who operated under the guise of journalists; and the propaganda specialists at the SABC. No surprise there. We knew they existed. What was horrifying, however, was the extent and sophistication of their operations—especially in the area of disinformation. Never, never again, we told ourselves.
The TRC aimed to promote national healing, and nation-building. How far, therefore, could media report critically on the TRC process without undermining it? Without playing into the hands of those who wanted the TRC to fail, in order to protect their own skins?

Journalist Stephen Laufer summed up the dilemma: “Our job is to question, to reflect the realities of what is going on, to attempt to show that truth is multi-faceted. Sometimes truth becomes particularly unpleasant when the victims have also been perpetrators –– or the perpetrators are in some fashion, victims.”

The journalists who reported on the TRC, day in and day out, paid a heavy price: emotionally, mentally and physically.
They absorbed the story, and it invaded their dreams and their nightmares. SABC producer, and veteran journalist Max du Preez, laughed when he was first offered psychological counselling. “A journalist getting therapy is like a Springbok rugby prop using moisturiser”, he joked. But four weeks into the TRC hearings, he noticed that members of his Special Report team were, as he put it, “cracking up”. It turned out, he wrote later, that “the rugby prop really did need moisturiser”.

There is much more to tell about the role media played in South Africa’s TRC process. How radio, TV and print helped to give the proceedings a human face; helped to expose the extent of apartheid-era atrocities — especially for those who chose not to attend the actual hearings.

A word of advice from Anneliese Burgess: an SABC television journalist who was part of the TRC Special Report team.
“My first bit of advice to anyone covering a TRC would be to use what was coming out of the hearing as the backbone of a story,” she says. “The challenge would be to go further.”

There are some key questions that need to be considered before embarking on any transitional justice journey. The media can stimulate debate about these issues, so that people can decide what they want  —  and what they don’t want — from the process, long before it starts.

Of all the different kinds of media, there is one that is crucial in this regard. Radio. Why? Because radio can provide space for dialogue. A space where people can talk and listen to each other. A channel to contest the ten powerful elites who make decisions in the name of those who are not so powerful.

But this can’t happen unless the airwaves are free. Unless there is a strong culture of community radio: radio by the people, for the people, from the people. Community radio can host talk shows in a mix of languages. It can create radio dramas, or use traditional story-telling, poetry and music to open up issues around justice, reconciliation and healing. Radio can allow people to speak freely, because it preserves their privacy and safety.

Of course, it can be risky to “open up the airwaves”: you need to make sure that radio stations don’t become tools of particular interest groups; or vehicles for propaganda. And that requires careful regulation, by independent bodies that everyone can trust.

In South Africa, at the time of the TRC, there was already a vibrant community radio sector. With enough support, community radio could have done so much to develop a stronger sense of ownership in the TRC process —   for all South Africans.
In the end, though, there can be no cookie-cutter model for transitional justice. Every country has to find its own way. As they say in West Africa: “Paths are made by walking”.

Meanwhile — and in closing — a note of sanity from the not-so-distant past.

“South Africa should put the freedom of its press and media at the top of its priorities as a democracy. None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to suggest even faintly that the independence of the press could be compromised or coerced. A bad free press is preferable to a technically good, subservient press,” Nelson Mandela said at the 10th anniversary of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg in 2002.

Lewin is a veteran South African journalist who served for two years on the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a member of the Human Rights Violations Committee. This article is an edited version of his speech to senior journalists in Harare on Monday.

By Hugh Lewin