Media and Transitional Justice: Toward a Systematic Approach (1-2)
This article by Monroe E. Price (University of Pennsylvania and Nicole Stremlau (University of Oxford) addresses a major gap in the transitional justice literature by exploring the role of the media in transitional justice processes.
Subsidy becomes a way of providing “more voices,” and favoring particular, often missing voices, as a response to the existence of speech that intensifies hatred. But international efforts at subsidy can be intrusive. They include the provision of media from outside the society (though certainly drawing, to the extent possible, on local energies). Even more concerted are the voices of international broadcasting, where there is an external investment in altering the tone and mix of domestic broadcasters.
International NGOs are substantial actors in this field and influence narratives and frames in ways that may be both beneficial and harmful to transitional justice efforts. Outreach programs of transitional justice measures themselves are also key actors in shaping the information environment and putting forward a particular vision and agenda. Since the early 1990s, a plethora of NGOs specializing in the use of subsidy to influence discourse have sprung up. We have already mentioned western organizations such as Search for Common Ground and Fondation Hirondelle, which seek to enhance communication among communities in areas threatened by or emerging from armed conflict. They do so by advocating for funding from governments and foundations and, with that support, providing programs and information they believe will reduce tensions and promote cooperation.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, subsidy to enrich narrative occurred in a number of ways, including through journalist assistance and the creation of independent media outlets and information campaigns. Like many media-related initiatives, these interventions had mixed impacts. According to a 2008 report of the ICTY, its Press and Information Office was created in 1994 in response to the international media’s demands for information. Initially, the Press and Information Office focused primarily on providing publications for the specialist legal community and improving its image in the international media.
It was not until 1999 that the ICTY reorganized and created an outreach program that began focusing on the perceptions and understandings of the victim- or perpetrator-related populations. For the first time, relevant public information was translated into Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. It is not altogether surprising that until this point the ICTY lacked a strategy for communicating with the population. For many organizations that rely on funding from international donors, even those with the best of intentions, the needs of the immediate customer—usually the donor—can skew priorities. The OHR developed a more purposive approach, but it too had its problems. It sought to create an independent television network to provide balanced information prior to the 1996 national elections.6 The network’s aim would be to provide all Bosnians with “unbiased information” from both local and international journalists, as well as commercial programs from around the world. The network came to be known as the Open Broadcast Network (OBN). OBN, along with the Swiss Free Elections Radio Network initiative, made some progress in its goal of creating a more pluralistic media across Bosnia-Herzegovina before the elections, but here as elsewhere, impacts were often ephemeral.
Other international organizations also sought to alter the media environment. UNESCO established a program bank in Sarajevo that asked European countries to donate some of their national broadcasting about history, arts, and culture. These programs would be broadcast on television stations across Bosnia-Herzegovina, helping to improve content and to avoid piracy. However, the effort had little success in producing more balanced broadcasts from the television stations. NATO troops also made an effort to spread alternative information. They created their own radio station, Radio Mir, or Peace. USAID sponsored election advertisements that called on Bosnians in every entity to utilize their right to vote to ensure “peace, democracy and the future of their country”. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) ordered all three party-controlled television stations to air the advertisements. However, according to local Bosnian newspapers, much of the population viewed the ads as condescending.
Efforts to alter identity relationships, even well-intended ones aiming to reduce conflict, must be approached with caution. These efforts, as Jean Seaton asserts, can backfire when attempts to depoliticize a conflict, or media reports about it, reduce “the social and economic realities, and the complex historical causes, that underlie and prolong these conflicts to ‘ethnicity’” Failure may occur because “Such explanations collude with protagonists’ nationalistic, mythologized interpretations of history that form part of the ideological battle that accompanies persecution” (pp. 43–44). Too often international NGOs lack the requisite local knowledge, while both local and international organizations may be “captured” by a particular political agenda and thus reinforce one narrative in the conflict or one interpretation of the causes of the violence. Local NGOs or civil society may be comprised of elites that are out of power, sometimes from the former regime, and such organizations may subtly encourage narratives that reinforce particular political positions. Transitional justice actors must be attentive to these histories if they seek to affect communication flows in a way that will be effective.
Law, force, and subsidy are a backdrop to a final mechanism: negotiation. Both the parties to a conflict and the NGOs that surround and seek to influence it turn to negotiation as a constructive way to yield resolution and rebuilding. Ultimately, the most drastic techniques, force included, are threats designed to induce negotiation and agreement. Negotiation may also be a technique to determine the representation of voices. In Lebanon, after its civil war in the 1990s, the confessional system yielded bargained-for allocation of broadcast channels. Transitional justice mechanisms may work best where the very system itself is the product of negotiation and agreement. Negotiation becomes, as it were, part of the music of transitional justice.
Here, too, media behavior becomes a central question. Negotiation is often a tense process that involves the weighing of costs and benefits by the many parties involved. It is a confluence of circumstances that require change, circumstances that are incentives to change, and circumstances that render change more costly. Media can raise the costs for officials engaged in negotiated outcomes and render a resort to force more (or less) likely. In a sense, “peace radio” efforts are often mechanisms designed to prepare the ground for negotiation by demonstrating, through programming, a space where rational discourse and a search for common ground—to borrow from the most famous proponent of this art form—is possible.
Crucially, the media can also serve as a space for elite negotiation or the negotiation of political power. This is most frequently the case with the press, which often provides a forum for intellectuals and politicians to offer articles outlining their positions or grievances. The nature of the medium is different from that of radio, which can, without care, become a forum for venting, arguing, or mobilizing. Newspapers allow for thought-through responses, lengthy policy explanations, and the definition of programs. The role of the media in negotiation, however, requires dialogue and engagement from all parties, including the government. Ignoring particular views or refusing to engage particular perspectives in an attempt to delegitimize them can lead to greater polarization and is likely counterproductive for transitional justice goals.
By Alula Berhe Kidani, 12/06/2012