Emotion and Objectivity: Can Journalists Covering TRRC Embrace Emotions and Be Objective?
For Gambian journalists covering the ongoing hearings of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, one of the biggest challenges they face is to how to balance their emotions with objectivity in the face of confessions of killings, torture and other alleged human rights violations meted out to Gambians during the regime of Yahya Jammeh.
Like everybody else, journalists are only human and they feel the pain, anger or sadness in the face of horrors. In a country where even journalists were victimized during the former regime, should their personal emotions in covering of the mechanism put in place to address the past become part of the stories they report?
“It is possible to cover the sessions objectively,” says Mustapha Darboe, a transitional justice reporter working for online Kerr Fatou. “For me, I just publish a daily and weekly summary of what has been said before the Commission as it is. But of course, at a person level sometimes I find myself screaming at a witness who I consider to be not truthful.”
“It is possible for journalists to report the TRRC hearings objectively,” agrees Yankuba Jallow alias Stay Balanced of Foroyaa newspaper. “I am not carried away in my work even though I feel emotional. The testimonies are usually chilling and I am always moved by the testimonies of victims and also the testimonies of perpetrators,” he tells The Chronicle.
Jallow is his newspaper’s main TRRC reporter. It’s also the first time he’s covering painful stories of this magnitude. According to him, testimonies of horror sometimes take their toll on him and his quest to always stay balanced.
“As a young journalist, whenever a person confesses to killing people, I feel depressed. I sometimes shed tears. Also, anytime a “jungular” confesses to the brutal slaying of people, I stop writing for a moment and look at the witness for some time.”
The role of any journalist covering issues such as the TRRC is to witness and report the hearings, and leave the judgments to the public. But according to Jallow, “the biggest challenge for us as journalists is that we’re sometimes sentimental.”
“Sometimes a journalist would focus on the violations of the rights by a perpetrator, while leaving away that perpetrator’s story as a victim. There are some who are both victims and perpetrators. Some of us are biased in our reporting by leaving the victimization of the perpetrators whose rights were violated by the same regime they were serving.”
For Darboe, the facts are not always available to journalists before witnesses appear before the TRRC or during their testimonies. This, according to him, makes the issue of objectivity complex for the journalists.
“You have alleged perpetrators implicating or exonerating one another. Equally, you have people who come before the Commission and say they have not done anything in the face of what many believe to be overwhelming evidence against them. In cases of this nature, it is easy to report in a way that suggests the person is lying to the Commission. This happened in the cases of Alagie Martin and Colonel Babucarr Jatta who had very unfavorable media coverage for allegations of abuse made against them prior to their appearances. It is not easy for a journalist to follow the hearings before the Commission and not being dragged into it.”
Pa Modou Faal, a journalist who covers the TRRC on a daily basis for Gambia Daily newspaper, recently appeared before the same Commission and gave testimonies of how he was arrested and jailed by the Jammeh regime for being a member of the Gambia Press Union (GPU). By default, his emotion and story has become part of the narrative. So can he bottle up his emotions as a victim and report the TRRC objectively as a journalist?
“As a human being, I feel very emotional at times, just like any other Gambian,” Faal tells The Chronicle. “I’m not going to pretend I don’t feel emotional. I’m familiar with some of the stories of pain and suffering victims narrate or perpetrators confess to because I was a victim of such. So people can judge if those feelings affect my stories, but I try as much as possible to report objectively, leaving my emotions and personal experiences out of my reporting.”
Mariam Ceesay is a young journalist covering the TRRC for online Gambia Talents TV and Sunu Rewmi newspaper. TRRC is her first major assignment and she struggles with emotions in her efforts to report objectively.
“I feel so emotional especially when the jungulars confess to participating in killings. These are shocking. I can’t believe they did those things. I find the confessions so terrifying and I struggle to keep my emotions away but as a journalist, I have no choice. I have to report the facts.”
For Jallow, covering the TRRC has been a learning process (about the past) as well.
“I was born few months after Jammeh took over the country. In fact I understand that he donated two bags of rice of rice to my father during my naming ceremony when he was going to a nearby village. This made me love him during my early childhood days. But I never knew the same man was behind all these atrocities committed in this country. Thanks to the revelations and information from the TRRC, I now understand that Jammeh is evil,” Jallow says.
“Personally I have been moved a lot of times and even shed tears because of the revelations by witnesses. Sometimes I think I feel more emotional than the victims.”