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Transitioning from War to Peace: Media and Peace-building

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Just as there are many factors igniting and encouraging conflicts, so there are many possible avenues for pursuing peace and resolving conflict. The strategies adopted often depend on which model is chosen for defining conflict. In dealing with conflict either through cessation of hostilities, involving rebuilding institutions or changing perceptions of the enemy; all of these can be achieved through the media.

In Liberia, without the participation of the local media, peace will remain elusive, (Waritay, Lamini, interview 2003).  Like Waritay, Dr. Alhassan Conteh, (then Research Fellow at Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, University of Pennsylvania) suggested that while actors and mediators are choosing a strategy for peace and analyzing the conflict, the media should be seen as partners in the process for peace building and sustainable development programs. Dr. Conteh explained that although media and conflict prevention forms a small point in the wide field of conflict resolution, the media is incredibly important in any society.

“An independent media functions as a vehicle for the flow of a diversity of viewpoints and multiplicity of voices, consequently permitting exercises of citizenship such as participation, criticism and voting,” Dr. Conteh stated.  From experience as a journalist, it is clear that the media can and do reach enormous amounts of people. Even in poor countries where most violent conflicts take place; Liberia and Sierra Leone as examples, radio reaches a large audience. Like Burundi, and as have been noted in many underdeveloped and war ravaged societies, in the absence of independent and credible communication, people tend to rely on rumors and misinformation.

“One of the objects of a newspaper is to understand the popular feeling and give expression to it, another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments; the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects” – Mahatma Gandhi

The above mentioned statement by Gandhi explains the importance of the not only newspapers, but the (print and electronic) media in upholding freedom and expanding education and social reforms and change. Sustainable democracy requires that people have the right to know and partake in decisions affecting their lives and also contribute to peace initiatives.

Experience has shown that there is a need to explore the values and role of the media in its entirety – electronic, print and other outlets for the promotion of civil society processes such as behavior change, reconciliation and peace building programs. Although there are known cases and instances in Africa including Liberia, Sierra Leone and in the Horn of Africa region where the media have been used to stir up conflicts and exacerbate war, the power of the media to transform conflict is exceedingly crucial to be overlooked.

Given the power of the media as a civil society tool for positive change and peace building, it is imperative to invest in and tap the potential of the media.  The media is the medium of exchange between policy makers and the general masses.  The media is the channel through which government speaks to the people and gets feedback from the citizens. The media is also the platform where citizens broadly participate in decisions making processes.   

Seen as the focal point for the exchange of idea, the media roves between and among all sectors of society not only playing a ‘watch dog” role but a free and strengthened media can promote culture of coexistence, tolerance, peace participatory democracy. One of the appropriate approaches the media can play in peace building, where to building peace is seen below in the pyramid below (Lederach 1997): 

The pyramid points out that the players in the top level of the pyramid and the intermediaries and the negotiations ought to be subjected to close media scrutiny (Lederach 1997). The pyramid demonstrates that a critical aspect of scrutiny of the peace approaches is needed to create trust; flexibility among the actors, opinion leaders, and protagonists and also to permit new options and compromise.

In the Liberian situation, most political analysts view the conflict as a source of change within a society that has suffered several political upheavals since its establishment in 1847.  Though conflict is a natural process, there is a possibility that it can lead to either constructive or destructive outcomes, depending on the ways in which parties approach the issues and one another thus the scrutiny of the media becomes crucial (Abu-Nimer, Mohammed. 2003).  

The media can keep the people inform about deliberations at the negotiations table. As outlets for divergent opinions, the media assure people that a given society is moving towards a healthy openness in dealing with its affairs or conflicts. As watchdogs on politicians and civil servants, free media hold members of society and government accountable for their actions.  Although the media has been seen to have played destructive role in many conflicts including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mindanao, Philippines, Rwanda, Yugoslavia among others, international organizations and NGO’s have studied, tested  and recognized that the media  have a crucial role in peace-building.

Like many war torn countries, some media institutions and journalists in Sierra Leone were criticized for the roles they played during the war (Interview Baryoh, David 2003).

“Mind you, over a dozen journalists were killed by the rebels and other factions during the war and conflict. While innocent civilians were being amputated and killed and while journalists were being victims, people were supporting groups carrying out these atrocities. That included some journalists and media institutions,” David Baryoh, a journalist and Executive Director of the Center for Media, Education & Technology, (CMET).  

Baryoh said in spite the bias and propagandist roles some journalists played during the Sierra Leone war; the independent media played and is still playing “tremendous” role in the peace-building process in that country, adding, “without the media, the level of peace prevailing in Sierra Leone would not have been possible.” 

On how the media and journalist became active in the peace process, he said, people manage institutions and journalists are also human beings who may take a certain position, yet the ethics of the profession [journalism] remains “a binding force” especially when the issue of “peace and democracy” is discussed.  Many donors and international organizations became aware that free and pluralistic media is an important precondition for peace building and democracy and began to provide assistance to strengthen the capacity of the Sierra Leonean media (Baryoh 2003).

Experiences and analysis of the positive roles of media and journalists in peace-building in Sierra Leone and the challenges of their colleagues in Liberia and other conflict countries indicate that a professional media can carry out and positively influence programs for peace building. The Former Director of Liberia’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, Mr. Kofi Woods (Interview 2003) said one basic aspect of journalism that the media could maintain and espouse is providing non-partisan news and reports. Mr. Woods said that by providing non-partisan news about conflict resolution and peace building programs, the media would be working towards ensuring a viable transition from war to peace.   

Woods said an important aspect for the media to consider is to earn the trust of the people. He considered this as important, otherwise, the media will be in danger of being interpreted as poor propaganda tool and will either be ignored or discredited, subsequently making it difficult to earn the trust of the public.

Ms. Kakuna Kerina, Director for Africa’s Program at the International League for Human Rights said empowering the media – providing trainings to enable the media to acquire the necessary skills to report objectively about issues, and use journalism as a source for positive change. Kerina said by providing the independent media  with professional skills enhancement training, and technical support and training, the media could initiate a democratic spirit of community reporting that would play a small part in reinvigorating a societies nation devastated by civil war.

Kerina also reiterated that the media can help in promoting peace by adhering to the ethics of the profession and that includes “keeping the public informed about different opinions and views but ensuring that they desist from providing partisan views.”  Ms. Kerina added, while the media may not be able to solve conflicts, but there is certainly an important role for them in spurring debate, stimulating healthy discussions within communities, and highlighting issues that would help in behavior change for peace-building and sustainable development.

The World Bank in its publication acknowledged that a “free press” enables public expression and informs the public of government actions (Colletta and Cullen 2000).  While international reports including the World Bank’s publication discussed the negative role the media played during wars and conflicts, there are also positive documentations of the positive roles the media have played in promoting peace. One organization that continues to highlight peace building and reconciliatory messages is Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit organization. Search for Common Ground launched radio production centers in many post conflicts, including Liberia, where Talking Drum Studio is still operating, and Studio Ijambo in the Republic of Burundi where Hutus and Tutsi journalists worked together and provided unbiased news, features and other program for peace and reconciliation.

In analyzing studio Ijambo’s program, Emery Brusset and Fabienne Hara of USAID said, “The media programs have had a significant positive impact in mitigating conflict, because of the quality of design that enabled Search for Common Ground to catch and hold the attention of the majority of the radio-listening population.” Studio Ijambo was launched at the height of ethnic and political violence in Burundi, when hate radio prompted genocide in neighboring Rwanda. The studio opened with the idea that if radio could be used for such destruction, it could be used to promote reconciliation, understanding and foster nonviolent conflict resolution.

Another success story of how the media can help in conflict resolution and in promoting peace is a soap Opera, New Home, New Life aired on BBC. Broadcasted three times a week to Afghan audience, the program addresses a wide range of issues that are of concern to the audience. Some of the issues the program covers include humanitarian, social, political and humanitarian problems, conflict resolution, the marginalization of women, and war related issues problem.  By creating a ‘fictional “space”’ to discuss and question taboo topics, the soap opera attempts to take a first step towards attitudinal and behavioural change (Adam, 2005).

While some may argue that the question of objectivity and the role of journalism aren’t under much scrutiny when it comes to reporting about conflict, but using the profession to proactively promote peace may be outside the scope of the profession.  The argument is that not only do journalists lack the skills, but by promoting peace, they may be taking sides, and subsequently lose their credibility.

Gordon Adam, co-founder and director of Media Support, a Scottish-based NGO in his presentation, [The media’s role in peace-building: asset or liability?] argued that “there is a moral responsibility

for journalists not just to observe – but to try and use the unprecedented power of the media to help build peace.”

Additionally, the general consensus is that an independent media strive to understand issues before writing about those issues; they also conduct unbiased research, conduct impartial interviews, and write relevant and balanced stories.  The guidelines for a media or Peace Journalism are not superfluous or far from the practice of journalism. The media could make a peace building impact by following the generally practices of journalism, as well as ensuring that they do not engage in sensationalizing issues, particularly conflicts, and other problems close o the hearts of the public. 

An independent media can help promote peace, or engage in peace journalism by obtaining detailed understanding of conflicts and peace building initiatives, build partnerships with conflict resolution organizations and experts working in the field as a way of gaining insights into the conflicts, level the playing field by giving the powerless a voice, encourage the development of a wider range of solutions, and the avoidance of sensationalism in its reporting.

Evidently, the media has not been adequately used as an instrument of peace building in many post conflict societies. There has been a large-scale omission of media as an instrument for peace-building and sustainable development programs (Himelfarb, 2009). Research and effective Peace Journalism programs in post conflict societies, indicates that there are enormous potential for the media to promote peace and help society transition from war and conflicts to peace.
The media has immense power, subsequently its power must be used to help resolve conflicts and move society from war to peace.

About the author: Musue N. Haddad is a Liberian Journalist/Photo-Journalist. She holds a graduate degree from George Washington University, and has worked both at home and outside of Liberia. While in exile from her home country, Haddad received several national and international awards for her journalistic practices and human rights work, including the Nelson Mandela Award for “Best Student in Photo-Journalism,” Human Rights Award from the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA), for “outstanding dedication and service towards the recognition, promotion and protection of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” and Human Rights Watch Hellmann-Hammett Award, granted to writers around the world who have been the targets of political persecution. In 1998/1999, she received the Press Union of Liberia “Journalist of the Year” and ‘”Photo-Journalist of the Year” awards.

***The first part of this article, transitioning from War to Peace: The Anatomy of Conflict was published recently. This is the second part. Watch out for Part IIl Transitioning from Crisis to Peace: Media and Elections.

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