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Media and Transitioning from War to Peace: The Anatomy of Conflict

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In Rwanda, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and many countries that experienced wars and conflicts, the role of the media in providing information (however objective, biased or sensationalism) about the conflicts cannot be underestimated. People read the newspapers, and listen to the radios, televisions, and online media for information. As the wars and conflicts began to subside, and society start transitioning from war to peace, the question of whether the same media can be used to help society move from war to peace, and in promoting sustainable development programs is one that prompt debates in few societies because of the imbalanced and slanted role the media may have played during the conflicts.

The emergency of the crucial role the media have in peace building is fairly recent. Critical analysis of what position the media has taken in conflicts dates back only to the nineties even though the media has existed for centuries.  Like many “tools” used by human beings, media can serve good or destructive purposes. Free, independent, objective media make people think, reflect and meet in an atmosphere of openness. Although, in many cases the media has played destructive roles in conflicts and has been used to manipulate the truth and to exaggerate or diminish facts, at its best, the media can promote peace; serve as a platform for the healthy exchange of ideas, and diversity of voices, thus allowing citizens the rights to relevant information. When citizens are informed, they can more actively participate in decision making processes within their societies.

Information is empowerment, and an essential tool that helps people make choices regarding their participation in the state, the market, civil society and in developmental initiatives. Sufficient and unbiased information enables people to decide rationally and take the right course of action beneficial to them.  The media, an appropriate channel for the dissemination of information, not only provide information to the public, but also give the people the voice to be heard and heeded in times of war, peace and in promoting sustainable development programs.

As is evident by its influential role, the media also helps in the socialization of people into citizenship, democratization and political society, reconstruction and peace building through impartial and responsible flow of information. And media encompasses much more than news-talk shows and dramas, radio and TV news programs as tools for promoting peace and reconciliation in regions around the world.  In Liberia, a country emerging from over 14 years of war and conflict, the media though also a victim and used as propaganda tool, it can help with reconstruction and peace-building and democratization processes.

Aside the need for media intervention during crises, and in promoting sustainable development programs, the commonly acknowledged justification to encourage media’s role in peace-building is to promote the fulfillment of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 19 states, “ Everyone has the right to the freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” (Columbia University, CSHR 1994).

Analysts parallel the system of communication to the human spine. Any malfunctioning of the spine may have a failing effect on human performance, thus poor communication could affect the performance of government and society. Realizing this, Article 15 of the Constitution of Liberia 1986 says: every citizen shall have the right to demand and receive information on any matter of public importance,” (Constitution of Liberia, 1986). This implies that the right to information is a human and constitutional right of the Liberian people.

The aim of this article is therefore to provide an analysis of the crucial role the media can play in peace building in Liberia, and other post conflict societies. Drawing from Sierra Leone and experiences of other countries emerging from conflict, this article focuses on the three essential features for promoting a stable democratization process and towards a durable peace, and promoting sustainable development.  The analysis is drawn from interviews, the research and educational materials, and personal experience as a journalist from the West African sub-region.

This article deals with three sections: The first section deals with the Anatomy of Conflict. The second section elaborates the Media’s role in Peace Building. The third section focuses on the importance of Open and Competitive Elections as key to stable democracy.

Notwithstanding the idea that conflict is complex, over the past decades various theories of conflict have been developed to interpret the factors involved in disagreements. Most protracted conflicts involve groups and people from various levels within society, and even across the globe. Violence may be used for various reasons; to protect or undermine and for economic privileges, (Mats Berdal and David M. Malone, 2000)

Therefore it is important to understand the different levels through which to approach a conflict, particularly factors that influenced the eruption of [a] conflicts and the players involved in the conflicts. Some actors may operate on more than one level depending on the conflict. It is especially important that peace initiatives include actors from every level, and are organized into coordinated and directed action.  As have been pointed out, grassroots peace movement can be very effective in changing local views on the conflict, (Lederach, 1997)

However, it is important to note that unless conflict resolution measures are enacted within the higher levels of the fighting groups’ leadership, peace will remain elusive. Alternatively, leaders may secretly reach an agreement that the populace is not ready for as was seen in the Liberian situation. Political leaders cannot lead where their followers are unwilling to go. Once a conflict has started there are numerous factors inducing the sustainability of conflict, and the likelihood of peace efforts to succeed may sometimes become difficult as has been experienced during the Liberian war, which started in 1989. In the case of Liberia, even after “elections” was held in 1997, sporadic fighting still continued.

As have been observed, cycles of violence often fuel and escalate disagreements while eroding trust in peace efforts – even during and after elections as witnessed in Liberia.  In most post conflict societies, sporadic fighting may also continue because “interest groups”  profit immensely from wars and battles, mercenaries, “militia groups”  loot and raid, and in most cases  “governments” use the fighting as mask cover  can extract aid from foreign nations. External actors can play significant roles, for better or worse, in conflict. Neighboring countries may take the opportunity to invest in various parties; Diasporas may fund rebel groups as has been in Liberia.  Foreign groups may support an already falling regime because of lucrative contracts. Lastly, unresolved grievances and popular support for continuing conflict can also thwart attempts at peace, (Africa Report to UN Sec-General, 1998).

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