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14 September 2009

The Media in Africa and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (Part I)

This is a two-part guest post by Andy Ofori-Birikorang. Andy recently received his PhD from Ohio University.

The media has been at the forefront of the vigorous campaign for the establishment of TRC in several African countries. The media’s role in TRC exercises across the continent  have been robust and vibrant by acting as the vanguard for protection of rights and liberties of individuals in the nation-state, and further as the gauge for assessing the articulation and professing of ‘truth’ as objective fact and reality in the society. The first part of this article, using Ghana’s reconciliation program- National Reconciliation Commission (NRC)- as a case study, discusses the media’s role in ascertaining the revelation of ‘truth’ as the hub upon which national reconciliation could be promoted.

Since South Africa established and submitted its final report on the truth and reconciliation exercise on October 28, 1998, many African countries trying to confront and lay to rest the sordid past of ethnic and political conflicts, and abuse of human rights, have called for the institution of similar reconciliation programs in their countries. It is believed that through revelations by both perpetrators and victims of the mechanics and mechanisms of the egregious acts, an acknowledgement of the level of impunity with which state resources, and in other cases international support, were marshaled to torment citizens, violate and abuse the fundamental rights individuals would not only come to constitute the ‘truth’ but also ‘reconcile’ citizens. It is also believed that a public declaration of the suffering and injustices meted out to victims of abuse would, through an outpour of their grief to an attentive public, help restore their dignity and pride back to them, and at the same time allow the perpetrators to come to terms with their atrocious past.  

Following this perspective, some African countries including Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Liberia have engaged the concept of TRC and established reconciliation programs as “effective means of coming to terms with their painful pasts of repressive state policies and the negative legacies of sharp political divisions and deep conflicts.” (Gyimah-Boadi, 2002).  While South Africa achieved huge success with their program, arguments still linger over the success of similar programs toward the promotion of national reconciliation in other African countries. For example, critics of the NRC in Ghana opine that the program left country more polarized than before. Yet many supporters and proponents of the NRC have sung praises to the commission for providing a symbolic arena of catharsis for victims.  

The final report of Liberia’s TRC has been described by some critics as “a recipe for chaos.” The controversial report indicts seven former warlords who are comfortably ensconced in offices as senators or cabinet members. The most damaging part of the report is its indictment of Africa‘s latest leadership jewel and first woman president of the continent, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who has been incriminated as an accomplice, however remotely, of former Liberian President Charles Taylor through various supports she gave  the former warlord during the  years of civil war. Despite the stark revelations before the TRC of the ‘truth’ of horrors and atrocities that border on extreme sadism, the perpetrators, victims, and many Liberian citizens do  not support the implementation of  some aspects of the TRC’s recommendations.  They believe that portions of the document, if implemented, rather than promoting reconciliation and national growth, will spiral Liberia back into an abysm of chaos. Liberians, according to Henry Knaup-a journalist who covered post-conflict life in Liberia, “want to leave past horrors behind -- and usher in the future.” 

Despite some of the controversies that have surrounded the outcome of TRC reports in Ghana and Liberia, many individuals, political groups and organizations including NGOs, political activists and civil society have suggested the institution of similar exercises in countries such as Kenya and Zimbabwe that recently emerged from internal conflict. Proponents for the establishment of the TRC in the  aforementioned  countries assert that it is the only way to engage the legacy of their horrible past, and allow the light of truth to guide them into building a future of hope for their citizenry.  

Long before the calls for the establishment of TRC’s became regular refrain in several regions of the continent, the media in Africa had provided the public with glimpses and insights into some of sordid and horrendous acts of perpetrators. In Ghana, the media, especially the private-independent, had fed the public with how past military regimes had systematically resourced and sponsored agents to intimidate, oppress and, in some cases, eliminate citizens who were deemed opponents of the government. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, some of the reports and revelations made before the Commissions including acts of cannibalism and cases of limb amputations had long been put in the public domain by the media. Many of the stories on violations and abuse had been given copious publicity in newspapers and magazines, beamed on TV screens, and aired on radios to remote locations.  Some reports were presented in graphic details with accompanying photos and, in others cases, video recordings on the commissioning of the crimes.  As the agents who supposedly happened to possess primary evidence of some events that were heard by the TRCs,  the media arrogated to themselves the power to ascertain how and what ‘truth’ was being presented. 

The media contended that withholding of truth or providing half-truths before a Commission by witnesses would defeat the purpose of the TRC. It was their duty to support Commissions to achieve the ultimate goal of uncovering the truth in order to promote reconciliation.  Sometimes, the TRCs found it necessary to ‘run-a-check’ on what constituted a narration of ‘truth’, and in such circumstances the media elected themselves as the system through which the check must be processed.  This assumption of truth-ascertaining power by the media, on several occasions, put them and the commission, including individual personalities on the panels and some witnesses on collision courses. For any revelation by witness to pass the ‘truth’ test, it must conform to the media’s own narrative version, especially, if the media had prior knowledge of the story, and had already put such version in the public domain. When a witness’ version was in consonance with the media’s,  the latter and, presumably, the public will then judge such narrative as ‘truth’ with the potential tendency to generate the desired catharsis on the part of victims and perpetrators, and ultimately, lead to genuine reconciliation. In situations where most of the revelations corroborated the media versions of similar stories, journalists became justified and vindicated on their truth-assertion role for the TRCs. On the other hand narratives that contradicted the media’s version led to confrontations between them and the TRC. The media became the spy-glass through which ‘truth’ could be ascertained and reconciliation forged. The rationale for the authoritative stamp of the media on what constituted ‘truth’ can be traced to how most of the narratives of horror came into public domain. 

First, many journalists were themselves victims of repressive regimes. Some had gone into hiding or exile; others had been incarcerated by regimes.  A few more had been bold enough to plant their stories in renegade media outlets. The stories that unfolded before the commissions echoed their stories and made their earlier circulated versions, simply, the ‘truth’.  Ironically, some journalists were also perpetrators or accomplices of the state machinery for the flagrant abuse and violation of rights.  

Second, even though the media had initially decided to leave the Commissions to perform their independent job of unraveling the truth, journalists were soon drawn into the center of activities as the events of the TRCs unfolded. In some cases, as happened in Ghana, different versions of the same story were provided by witnesses making it difficult for the public to determine which version was the ‘truth’. In such cases, through a reliance on the circulation of their earlier versions of the stories, the media became the most authoritative body to ascertain the ‘truthful’ version.  In other cases, the media pieced the different versions together to create a coherent narrative from which a ‘truthful’ conclusion could be drawn by the public.  

Third, it also became clear that some abuse and violations were instigated by journalists who were on the payroll of government and allowed their editorial opinions to be manipulated for the purpose of persecuting innocent citizens.  The left and centrist media, many of whom suffered under such regimes were concerned that, since truth depends on individuals’ social, cultural, psychological and ideological understanding of events surrounding them, concerted efforts must be made to obstruct powerful authorities from hijacking the processes to present their versions of the truth to the public.  

Fourth, the media believed that cases of multiple versions of stories, peddling of half- truths, and narration of fragments of same events demanded a better evaluator mechanism for the determination of what amounted to a version as ‘truth’. This evaluator mechanism would mean that reports and coverage of stories must be analyzed holistically from cultural, social, ideological, and psychological experiences and perspectives. The media believed that they were the only organ well-equipped to accomplish this exercise.  Clearly, this position led the media to tout their version of ‘truth’ as irrefutable.  Nowhere was this tendency conspicuously displayed than during the coverage of NRC proceedings in Ghana. 


Bose Maposa said...

Great article Dr. Ofori! In terms of the 'success' of a TRC or any other entity that seeks the truth and to reconcile people, what exactly are the bench marks? Do we look at the number of people who testify? Or if the recommendations of the final report of the commission were executed? You state that "...South Africa achieved huge success with their program" but there still remains some critique of the aftermath of the process. Additionally, it seems that the success of the Liberian 'TRC' depends on not executing the proposed recommendations; Rwanda is not a success because 'justice' was served and most of the perpetrators are in jail. To reiterate Mamdani's diagnosis, Rwanda was "justice without reconciliation, while South Africa's was reconciliation without justice'. Your thoughts?

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