Journalism and news media play a vital role in conflict, both through their analysis of events leading up to conflict and how violent clashes are framed for the wider public. But as vital as journalists’ roles are in covering conflict, they may also have disastrous effects by inflaming or prolonging fierce conflict.
In the two years following the Arab Spring, Egyptian activists have accused state news media of inciting violence against protestors through deliberate campaigns of misinformation and biased coverage. The aggression came to a head in October last year when around 30 Egyptian protestors were killed and hundreds injured in violent clashes with security forces. State media incited attacks against protestors, and further described the protestors as “domestic enemies”, thugs, criminals and hooligan youth, which activists argue has inflamed and prolonged the conflict.
Similarly, in Rwanda, the so-called ‘hate media’ was blamed for further inciting genocide through prolific hate speech and metaphors in 1994. The United Nations Tribunal in Arusha later convicted three media executives of being key figures in the media campaign to incite ethnic Hutus to kill Tutsis. The 1990s conflict in the Balkans was similarly blamed on Serbian state broadcasting. These incidents serve as potent examples of the power media yield in conflict situations, and also serve as the impetus for the development of a new way of reporting: conflict sensitive journalism (CSJ).
“Incompetent journalism and partisan news management can generate misinformation, which inflames xenophobia, ethnic hatred, class warfare and violent conflict in almost any fragile state,” writes Ross Howard, a leading journalism trainer and author of a handbook on conflict sensitive journalism.
“Reporters need to be aware of this crucial role that journalism can play in a time of conflict,” Howard adds.
What is conflict sensitive journalism?
Howard stresses that where poor journalism can inflame or incite violent conflict, reliable and responsible journalism can aid in conflict resolution. But in order to facilitate the media’s role in conflict resolution, journalists need to understand the origins and development of conflict, as well as how it is resolved and where these causes and solutions can be found.
“By providing this information,” writes Howard, “journalism makes the public far more well-informed about the conflict beneath the violence, and can assist in resolving it.”
The violent clashes of the early 1990s in South Africa served as fertile ground for the development of our own form of CSJ, fervently advocated for by international peace process and negotiations facilitators Hannes Siebert and Melissa Baumann, also the co-founders of the now closed Media Peace Centre.
Founded in South Africa in 1992, the Media Peace Centre was formed alongside the creation of the National Peace Secretariat, of which Siebert was also director. The Secretariat was responsible for the co-ordination of conflict resolution strategies under the National Peace Accord, which is credited with enabling a relatively peaceful transition to democracy after the harrowing brutality of the apartheid regime. The Secretariat was dissolved in 1994 when the then National Assembly opted not to renew funding for the project.
Writing for the Rhodes Journalism Review in 1997, Baumann and Siebert stressed the importance of journalists’ roles as conflict mediators. “Journalists have a unique opportunity to impact upon conflict – pre-emptively, in its midst, and restoratively – to ‘intervene’ as mediators do.
“We also suggest that journalism, like mediation, is or should be an ethical intervention – we are there to help the different parties manage, perhaps resolve, the conflict, and to support peace and justice,” Baumann and Siebert added.
But the idea that journalists should intervene directly in conflict situations to bring about peace, as is the case made by peace journalism advocates, may sit uncomfortably with academics and journalists as a result of its obvious subjectivity. In an attempt to address this, CSJ advocates instead argue that journalists need to cover conflict “responsibly”, a task which journalists were failing to do because they did not understand the nature of conflict.
What is ‘conflict’?
Recognising the immense value of conflict analysis and theory for journalists working in fragile, warring and post-war states, journalism development organisations have sought to include training on CSJ in their programmes in fragile countries. Of these organisations, International Media Support (IMS) is a leading advocate and was established following the Rwandan and Balkan conflicts in the 1990s.
IMS defines ‘conflict’ broadly, and does not limit it to moments of violence. Rather, conflict is broadly defined as “a situation where two or more individuals or groups try to pursue goals or ambitions which they believe they cannot share,” writes IMS in a handbook on CSJ. “Not all conflict is violent.”
Where conflict does result in physical violence, according to CSJ advocates, journalists need to identify accurately and analyse the causes of this violence. IMS cites instances of cultural violence, such as hate speech and xenophobia, or structural violence, in the form of extreme exploitation and institutionalised discrimination, as key causes of violent physical conflict. “These kinds of violence are extremely important to identify when reporting and analysing conflict,” writes IMS. “Ending physical conflict will not be enough. It will happen again if the cultural and structural violence is ignored.”
This point is especially relevant in a post-Marikana South Africa, still reeling after the violent clash between striking miners and police that left 45 people dead and 70 more shot in August 2012. South African journalists have been criticised for their coverage of the violent clash, but little has been said about the coverage preceding the tragedy that befell the community that month. The conflict between miners, their unions and mine management began months, if not years, before it reached its tragic zenith on 16 August. CSJ advocates would argue that, had South African journalists been aware and sensitive to this conflict, it could have been possible to not only avoid physical violence, but perhaps even manage and eventually resolve the conflict.
As matters currently stand, the conflict between miners, their unions and mine owners will likely continue long after the ongoing Farlam Commission has finalised its findings on Marikana. This commission is arguably the most important judicial probe in post-democracy South Africa since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the latter of which is often held up by CSJ advocates as an example of the importance of this form of journalism for conflict resolution. But where the commission investigates the physical violence of the Marikana tragedy, CSJ would require South African journalists to contextualise the longer term causes of non-violent conflict between miners and mine owners in South Africa.
This story was first published in the February issue of The Media magazine.
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