A quarter of a century ago, truth commissions emerged as one of the vehicles of transitional justice after times of violence. In the mid-1990's, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) brought new approaches to the process: It gave individual amnesty to those who testified; it allowed victims of the opposite sides to testify during the same forum; and, its hearings were held in public.
Once it was decided that the TRC hearings would be held in public, then decisions about news media coverage of the proceedings had to be made. To enable as many South Africans as possible to keep up with the proceedings, the commission, as it noted in its final report, "judged radio the most effective communication medium." It described its reasoning in this way: "Radio listenership figures far outstrip newspaper readership. In addition radio broadcasts penetrate all corners of the country in the home languages of the majority of South Africans ... [also] for those who are not literate and for those in rural areas."
The commission's radio strategy was buttressed by efforts to make it work. Money was raised to support such coverage; a special room was allocated to radio journalists; feeds of the different translations (of various languages and dialects spoken in South Africa) were relayed to radio journalists, and special phone lines were installed so that reports with quality sound could be fed straight to the news desk and to current affairs shows.
The Role of Journalists
I covered for radio the drafting of the TRC's legislation in parliament. When the South African Broadcasting Corporation set out to create a team to report on the commission's work, I was chosen to direct it. Our team adopted a multi-pronged approach using hourly news bulletins, longer news packages, Q. and A.'s, debates and analysis. At first we used this variety of genres to satisfy our need to understand events or behaviors, but over time this approach also prevented listeners from being bombarded with terrible facts of pain and suffering without any attempt made to find ways to process what they were hearing. We focused on concepts such as memory loss, post-traumatic stress symptoms, and anomie.
There was value in this core reporting group. We developed an institutional memory so we could immediately pick up any change in the process of testimony. More importantly, we could identify silences. We didn't think that we should fill the silences, but we tried to analyze why they were there.
I only forbade members of our reporting team from doing one thing: initiating, looking for, or broadcasting a "live" reconciliation story. Reconciliation was immensely important and personal. I didn't believe we had a right to witness it because our mere presence could interfere with and influence the process in a way that it perhaps didn't really want to go. Individuals dealing with their pasts were always more important than a journalist's story. Sensitive issues such as forgiveness or revenge should never be manipulated because one wanted a good story. I was and still am hugely suspicious of people who confront victims with questions about forgiveness.
The journalists' devotion to this story, evident in their reporting on the TRC, showed that they felt involved in a process that was not simply a story; it resonated with and affected their lives. We reported this story because we wanted a better country and we wanted the effects of past injustice to come to light. If one wants a better society, a more caring and fair society, then targeting particular people as enemies or presenting some people as the devil isn't productive.
I once watched the BBC's reporting about Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The camera, which must have been below him, showed his face looking bloated and …